Alan of Lille Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Alan of Lille c. 1117-c. 1202-03

(Also known as Alanus de Insulis and Alain de Lille) Flemish theologian and poet.

Famous during his lifetime as a preacher, scholar, philosopher, speculative theologian, and author, Alan of Lille is best-remembered for his epic allegorical poems De Planctu Naturae (The Complaint of Nature), and Anticlaudianus de Antirufino. Both works depict cosmic spiritual journeys in quest of divine vision and human perfection, and their fundamental argument is that, while the understanding of Nature and the pursuit of the liberal arts may provide the means for arriving at the threshold of divine knowledge, they are not proper ends in themselves. In both form or content these allegories are believed to have served as models for later medieval masterpieces like the chivalric romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Chaucer's House of Fame.

Biographical Information

Much of what is known about Alan's life is conjecture, construed from a variety of sources. Until 1960 it was assumed that Alan had been born around 1128; however, in 1960, Marcel Lebeau, a monk of the Citeaux Abbey, near Dijon, France, where Alan resided in his last years, uncovered Alan's grave. His body was exhumed, and forensic experts determined he died at the age of eighty-six, setting the date of his birth in 1116 or 1117. Scholars derive the date of Alan's death, based on references by the thirteenth-century chronicler Alberic de Trois-Fontaines and the seventeenth-century chronicler Charlemont, as somewhere between April 14, 1202 and April 5, 1203. An addendum to his epitaph, probably originating in the sixteenth century, giving his death date as 1194 has since been discredited. Evidence also suggests he was born at Lille in Flanders, and that he went to the school of St. Peter there, arriving to study in Paris around 1136, probably with Gilbert of Poitiers. Alan may have heard Thierry of Chartres, a Platonist, lecture in Paris and may have studied with him at Chartres. Although it is unknown if Alan had any contact with Platonist scholastic theologian Bernardus Silvestris, it seems reasonable to assume that he read his works. The influence of Silvestris on Alan is evidenced by the frequency with which Alan quoted from Bernardus's De Universitate Mundi in his own writing. It is believed that after he completed his studies, Alan taught in Paris, probably as the head of an ecclesiastical school. Further, the warm dedication of his tract against heretics to William VIII of Montpellier suggests he also lived and wrote for a time in Montpellier. Toward the end of his life Alan entered the monastery at Citeaux to make spiritual preparation for death.

Major Works

Although he wrote several important and influential works on the art of preaching, on teaching rhetoric, and on several other topics related to Christian theology, Alan's two allegorical poems are considered his major achievement. De Planctu Naturae, modeled on Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, concerns the conflict between sense and reason. Critic Ernst Robert Curtius explains it as follows: “Exactly as the motions of the planets run counter to the revolution of the firmament, so in man sense and reason are in conflict. This conflict is preordained in order that man may be tried and rewarded.” Alan describes Nature as an “intermediate power between God and man,” who “subordinates herself to God.” According to Alan, though, man distorts Nature through “perverted sexual love,” particularly homosexuality. The Anticlaudianus, a poem of over 4000 lines, is indebted to Bernardus Silvestris' Cosmographia. Written in classical hexameters, the work depicts Wisdom's journey to God at Nature's behest in order to obtain a Soul. The Soul is needed to complete the man Nature has formed. The poem describes the triumphant victory of that new man over an army of vices unleashed from Hell.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Alan was known as doctoris universalis, celebrated for the breadth of his learning, the power of his preaching, and the flexibility of a poetic imagination which, according to J. R. O'Donnell—because of Alan's confidence in his Christian faith—was able to admit elements from pagan culture into his poetry. John of Garland wrote of him in 1252 as an “inspired bard,” who “enhanced the wealth of learning at Paris,” “tamed” heretics and was “greater than Virgil, more reliable than Homer.” His pupil Ralph of Longchamps, writing of his own commentary on Alan's Anticlaudianus notes that “the memory of [his] love and friendship often forces me to tears.” In the centuries following his death, Alan's works were reproduced and circulated in a number of manuscripts. In fact, his reputation was so great that many more works were attributed to him. Scholars now believe that many of these works were not actually written by him. Curtius regards Alan as “a poet with a prodigious power of expression; a speculative theologian who tapped fresh springs;” all in all “one of the most significant figures of the twelfth century.” C. S. Lewis, in his well-known study of medieval literature, The Allegory of Love, agrees that the Anticlaudianus is important from a “historical point of view” noting that “no one who has plodded doggedly through him will wholly regret the time he has spent.”